Borrowing Ideas from other Authors

I became familiar with this book Painting the Wind at a session I attended at the NCTE conference and immediately went home and ordered it. Rose Cappelli shared some ideas for using this text with student writers. I emailed Rose to make sure it was OK  to share her lesson with our readers in hopes that teachers can take it and make it their own. Thanks Rose for saying YES! Rose and her writing partner Lynn Dorfman have written several books (Mentor Texts, Nonfiction Mentor Texts, and Poetry Mentor Texts) filled with dependable classroom ideas that work well with a variety of grade levels.

After sharing the book Painting the Wind, Rose asked us to focus on this paragraph:

“Summer is here.  And the painters come back to the island.  They come on the mail boat with their paints and easels and bags of books and favorite pots and pans. Some bring their children. All of them bring their dogs.”

As we noticed the variation in sentence length, she shared another from Sarah, Plain and Tall:

“The dogs loved Sarah first. Lottie slept beside her bed, curled in a soft circle, and Nick leaned his face on the covers in the morning, watching for the first sign that Sarah was awake.  No one knew where Seal slept.  Seal was a roamer.”

The variation in sentence length that Patricia MacLachlan uses certainly adds to the rhythm of the text.  But just getting kids to notice something about an author’s writing style will not guarantee that the students will take it on.  Rose and Lynn often follow this plan:

Hook the students with a great children’s literature that invites participation.

Share your purpose – tell the kids what the lesson is about

Brainstorm – real life writing ideas

Try a model – demonstrate what you are talking about in front of the kids

Shared/guided writing – let the kids try it with a partner

Independence – have the students look for opportunities in their own pieces

This format echoes all those other “greats” who also write about supporting student writers– from Calkins to Fletcher to Katie Wood Ray to Georgia Heard.

Here is what Rose did next.  She mentioned a passage from John Henry by Julius Lester and another from James and the Giant Peach (where the aunts are getting run over by the peach.) Both passages have a long rolling sentence with lots of motion followed by shorter sentences.

Rose asked the audience as she does with her students, “What is something in real life that has that fast, fast movement and then all of a sudden… stops?” The kids brainstormed:  recess, various sporting events, getting ready for school, etc.

Rose then modeled a paragraph in front of the students, writing about a basketball player.  “Mark crisscrossed to the other end of the court dodging his opponents and dribbling the ball in a staccato rhythm as the shouts and cheers from the fans echoed in his ears. He made the shot. The whistle blew. Victory!”

I think you can see how brilliantly Rose’s lesson would entice students to want to take a look at their own written pieces to see if varying their sentence length could spruce up their writing. Thanks Rose for sharing your lesson idea! Be sure to check out Rose and Lynn’s new book on Poetry.


  1. I’m finally catching up on blog reading and was so happy to see this post on the session I missed at NCTE—and to find the two gorgeous passages from Patricia Maclachlan! Interestingly enough Mary Ehrenworth and I shared the same passage from James and the Giant Peach in The Power of Grammar, along with the work of a middle school boy who used it to great effect in a narrative about the prom. I also used it as a mentor passage with a 5th grade class, adapting Dahl’s long winding sentence followed by three short ones to a narrative I wrote about my dying cat. While the kids couldn’t always fully control the winding sentence, they loved mixing the long and the short to emphasize an important shift. Here’s the Dahl and mine:

    They both lay on the ground, fighting and clawing and yelling and struggling frantically to get up again, but before they could do this, the mighty peach was upon them.
    There was a crunch.
    And then there was silence.
    The peach rolled on.

    They both lay on the sofa bed, curled up and cuddling, San Juan purring and Kayla crying, both of them trying to forget what was happening, but before they could, the moment was upon us.
    I got the cat carrier.
    We put her in it.
    I left the house.

  2. Thanks for this example, Vicki. I’ve been searching everywhere for my copy of James and the Giant Peach. So many teachers are afraid to write in front of their students. I think examples like yours and Rose’s show them that it’s not so difficult after all. Showing how we all can borrow ideas from other authors is so powerful!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s